A small town in Alaska has experienced a boom in tourism in recent years, as polar bears spend more time on land than in decreasing Arctic sea ice.
More than 2,000 people visited the northern Alaskan village of Kaktovik in the Beaufort Sea last year to see polar bears released, the state Energy Office reported Monday.
The community lies on the coast of the Beaufort Sea, an area where rapid global warming has accelerated the movement of sea ice, the main habitat of polar bears. As ice has been reduced to deep water beyond the continental shelf, more bears remain on the ground to search for food.
Far from the tourist route until recent years, the new residents of the small village of Kaktovic in northern Alaska are polar bears that withdraw from their natural habitats due to climate change. Now, each fall, thousands of people flock to the remote location to approach the creatures.
Bruce Inglangasak (pictured above) was concerned that visitors would be dissuaded by the local tradition of subsistence whaling, but instead, he has seen an increasing number of photographers on their wildlife viewing tours.
The town had less than 50 visitors annually before 2011, said Jennifer Reed of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"Today we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of visitors, many from all over the world every year," Reed said.
Polar bears have always been common on sea ice near Kaktovik, but residents began to notice a change in the mid-1990s. More bears seemed to stay on land, and researchers began to note that more female bears they made dens in the snow on earth instead of on the ice.
Biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service UU They began to hear reports of an increasing number of polar bears in the area in the early 2000s, Reed said. As more attention was paid to the plight of polar bears a decade ago, more tourists began to head to Kaktovik.
Most visit in the fall, when bears are forced to land because sea ice is farthest from the coast. The average high temperatures during this part of the year are around the freezing point. Some bears are stranded near Kaktovik until the sea freezes in October or November.
More summer dens have resulted in more puppies (pictured) being born on land for the first time
The fall also occurs when the residents of Kaktovik kill three Greenland whales. Bruce Inglangasak, a subsistence hunter from Inupiaq who offers tours to observe wildlife, said residents were not sure how tourists would react to whaling.
"The community was scared, you know, the activists (who would try) to make us close the subsistence hunt," Inglangasak said. "But that's not true."
Inglangasak said he has been offering polar bear tours since 2003 or 2004.
The majority of its customers come from China and Europe, as well as from the continental United States, and arrive in Kaktovik by charter aircraft from Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Many tourists stay several days in the village, which has two small hotels, said Inglangasak.